Natural Heritage Information Centre


By Andrea McDowell, originally published March 24, 2011

Invaluable tool for natural heritage in your neighbourhood

 If you’re anywhere near my age–and for the sake of my ego, let’s pretend that you are–then you remember back in the old days when you needed to actually go to a library in person and look something up in a book when you wanted to learn about it. This involved something called “card catalogues,” which contained many small pieces of paper that told you where on the shelves you needed to look. Very likely, you spent an unbelievable amount of time and small change standing next to a photocopier, copying a report or an article out page by page. Nowadays you can download anything in a fraction of the time, for free, and while listening to a book or a song to boot, and Natural Heritage information is no exception.

One comprehensive website for Natural Heritage in Ontario is the Natural Heritage Information Centre (NHIC), produced by the Ministry of Natural Resources. A caution: so far as I know, the website works only in Explorer. Open up the Biodiversity Explorer and take a look at your own neighbourhood by clicking on “natural areas” on the left. You can do a map-based search for provincial or national parks, or Areas of Natural and Scientific Interest (ANSIs), by clicking on the Reference Layers folder on the right. And you can do a search under Element Occurence for rare or endangered species sitings, conservation areas, wildlife concentration areas, plant communities, and so on: zoom in far enough that the “10KM Squares” check-box is no longer greyed out, click on it, then select the circled “i” icon right beside it. If you then click on the location you’re interested in, the NHIC will give you that area’s 10KM identification number, and you can search on it under “Element Occurence” on the left.


The NHIC is an invaluable tool for municipalities, government agencies and consultants as well, who need to use and analyze information on Natural Heritage features in the course of their daily work. But just because it was put together so that an environmental planner could better assess the impacts of a water treatment plant on a nearby water body, or a Conservation Authority or non-profit prioritize lands for conservation, doesn’t mean that you can’t use it to figure out if there are any Areas of Natural or Scientific Interest in North York (there are–the East Don River Valley) or if there have ever been any Least Bitterns or Peregrine Falcons sighted in the 10-km square encompassing downtown Toronto (there have). In fact, for a distracting way to find out what Natural Heritage features exist in your own backyard or around the corner, the NHIC is a great place to start.

Andrea McDowell coordinates environmental approvals and studies for wind energy projects by day and writes about environmental issues by night. This leaves twilight for hiking all over Southern Ontario’s conservation areas, parks and trails, taking photographs and cataloguing whatever she finds there at her blog Zoopolis ( She has contributed to This Magazine, Spacing, Corporate Knights, Brain, Child and Send your questions or comments about
natural heritage for possible use here to:

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